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Food Stamps Subsidizing Junk Food

Restaurants on food-stamp menu

Seniors, homeless can now present electronic cards at some eateries

By Clea Benson -- Bee Capitol Bureau - (Published July 4, 2004)

SAN FRANCISCO - A sign in the window of the Carl's Jr. at U.N. Plaza reads, "We gladly accept EBT."

For thousands of elderly and homeless people in the city who are unable to prepare food for themselves, that sign means they can buy a hamburger, fries or anything else on the menu with the electronic cards that have replaced food stamps.

Until now, poor families who received a monthly federal government subsidy for groceries were allowed to redeem their food stamps only for cold and unprepared food. But San Francisco's restaurant meals program, the only one of its kind so far in California, is an indication of the changes under way in the nation's 40-year-old food-stamp program.

The program officially went completely electronic nationwide last week when California became the last state to complete the transition from paper stamps designed in the 1960s to Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that look and work like bank cards. People who receive welfare benefits also get their cash assistance payments on the same cards.

In switching to the electronic cards, many states also have begun to look at ways to make it easier for food stamp recipients to use their benefits. Nineteen states have instituted some form of restaurant program for elderly, disabled and homeless people who are unable to store food or cook for themselves. Recipients who are able to cook are still restricted to buying cold food.

Using San Francisco's program as an example, the state government in May approved regulations that would let all California counties start restaurant meal programs for some food stamp users. Some counties, including Sacramento, are looking into starting similar efforts.

Advocates for food stamp recipients praise the new developments. But they also say they want to make sure the program does not end up funneling food-stamp users to chain and fast-food restaurants. In San Francisco, where 19 restaurants are participating in the program, most are either Subway sandwich stores or Carl's Jr. franchises.

"We'd hope you'd be able to get culturally appropriate foods," said George Manalo-LeClair, legislative director at California Food Policy Advocates. "There are some misconceptions that food stamp recipients are buying junk food. If people did see food stamps being redeemed at fast-food stores, it would fuel that myth."

Leo O'Farrell, who runs San Francisco's food-stamp programs, said the county reached out to chain restaurants in part to reassure small neighborhood restaurants that they would not be the only ones serving food stamp recipients. And for homeless people, places like Carl's Jr. work well, he said.

"I think the thing was, here's a low-cost meal," he said. "It's a hot meal, and you can fill your belly."

About 6,000 people in San Francisco are eligible for the program, O'Farrell said. In one recent month, participating restaurants conducted more than 11,000 food-stamp transactions worth about $58,000 in federal benefits.

San Francisco also has been trying to enlist more mom-and-pop restaurants in neighborhoods where homeless people congregate.

The first small establishment to sign on was Victory Restaurant on Sixth Street downtown.

"People come here because my food is cheap," said Wendy Ho, the owner, who serves up a traditional American breakfast for $3.75 and a Chinese lunch buffet for $4.

The line at her restaurant is out the door during the first 10 days of the month just after benefits are distributed, Ho said. Some people trundle in their shopping carts filled with all of their belongings. Ho swipes their purchase on a special electronic card reader provided to her by the county.

As Ho dished out steaming plates of food on a recent afternoon, people wandered in and out from the street, trying to sell items ranging from pens to perfume to earn a few extra dollars. It was the end of the month, and most EBT card users had already spent their monthly allotment, which can range from about $60 to about $140, depending on whether the user receives other benefits.

Walton L. Jennings came in for a late breakfast of hash browns, toast, eggs and coffee. Jennings, 45, who describes himself as a former drug user, lives in a shelter around the corner from Victory Restaurant.

"I eat here quite often because it's a good restaurant," said Jennings, who heard from a friend at the shelter that Victory accepted EBT cards. "I prefer to sit in a restaurant like this with a card and enjoy a restaurant-style meal."

The switch to electronic cards has benefited food stamp users overall because it has cut the risk of being robbed, Jennings said.

Eventually, officials hope recipients will be able to use their EBT cards when they travel to other states, much the way bank card users can use bank machines everywhere. They also are working on expanding the use of the card in such places as farmers markets.

"I do think having an easy outlet will increase food-stamp participation," Manalo-LeClair said. "Why get food stamps if I can't use them?"